Once A Thief (DVD)

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Once A Thief (DVD)

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As the chief progenitor of the so-called "cinema of cool," director John Woo (The Killer, Hard-Boiled) exported high style from Hong Kong in the late '80s and early '90s, but he was less an innovator than a master thief, making splashy new art out of stolen ideas. The ultimate film-geek auteur, Woo plucked from a host of American and European influences (the balletic slo-mo violence of Sam Peckinpah, the stark mano-a-mano morality of the Western, the iconic hero of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï) and imitated them to untold excess. But beyond his wonderfully inventive mimicry, Woo's most important and enduring contribution to the action genre may be in getting modern audiences to accept (and lustily crave) the sort of utter ridiculousness that was previously reserved for kung-fu movies. Though it cuts back considerably on the detonating bloodpacks that had become his signature, Woo's breezy 1990 caper comedy Once A Thief cheats logic and gravity at every turn, relying on freak bits of timing, limitless bullet clips, and stunts no human could perform outside the Big Top. Yet it gets away with the same irreverent silliness of his best work, if only because Woo does the impossible with so much flair that it doesn't matter. The plans for every heist figure in at least a few wholly implausible events: An armed henchman gets conked on the head with a grappling hook launched from 100 feet below, a museum guard happens to blurt out which crate contains a Modigliani painting, an infrared security system is navigated through a lens of cheap wine. But since Woo blithely tosses all the rules out the window, the more outrageous his setpieces, the funnier they tend to be. In a radical departure from his usual poker-faced cool, Woo favorite Chow Yun-Fat leads a trio of hammy art thieves, former orphans who were adopted by a Hong Kong underworld kingpin (Kenneth Tsang) and forced into a life of crime. Together with Leslie Cheung and Cherie Chung, Chow and his team form a playful Jules And Jim-like romantic triangle, plundering galleries across Europe for black-market thugs while enjoying their own fantasy world of high living and pranksterism. Goaded into one last job before going straight for good, they track down a supposedly "cursed" painting that has obsessed several dealers, including their estranged stepfather. A featherweight anomaly in Woo's career, Once A Thief combines sizable chunks of Rififi and Raiders Of The Lost Ark with the low comedy of TV's Benny Hill, chasing suspenseful derring-do with goofy experiments in fast-motion, trick birthday cakes, and other practical jokes. Some of the gags seem older than cinema itself, but Woo and his cast are so infectiously earnest and unbridled in their delivery that the occasional groaners don't take away from the fun. And rest assured, even with the family-friendly bloodlessness, he still finds other ways–a flaming basketball! a skateboard shootout! a deck of killer playing cards!–to end the movie with a bang.

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